Military history

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TWENTY-FIVE MILES EAST of Oosterbeek at his II SS Panzer Corps headquarters in a small castle on the outskirts of Doetin-chem, General Wilhelm Bittrich held a meeting with his two remaining division commanders. Bittrich was in a bad mood, barely able to contain his temper. The outlook for his battered panzer corps was now far worse than it had been a week earlier. Impatiently Bittrich had awaited replacements in men, armor and equipment. None had arrived. On the contrary, his force had been whittled down even more. He had been ordered to send two combat groups to the front. One was with the German Seventh Army trying to hold the Americans near Aachen; the other was dispatched to bolster General Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army after British tanks successfully breached the Albert Canal line, crossed the Meuse-Escaut Canal and grabbed a bridgehead at Neerpelt almost on the Dutch border. Now, at a time when the British were massing to renew their offensive—an attack that the intelligence chief at Army Group B called “imminent”—Bittrich had received through Field Marshal Model a “crazy directive from the fools in Berlin.” One of his shattered divisions was to be cannibalized and pulled back into Germany.

A once-ardent Nazi, Bittrich denounced the order acridly. He “was sick and tired of Berlin’s orders and the sycophants around Hitler who were indulging in all kinds of gimmickry.” Courageous and able, Bittrich had spent most of his adult life in uniform. In World War I, he had served as a lieutenant in the German air force and had been twice wounded. Later, for a few years, he worked in a stockbroker’s office. Then, rejoining the armed forces, Bittrich became a member of a secret German air-force team and for eight years taught flying to the Russians. When Hitler came to power, Bittrich joined the newly formed Luftwaffe but in the mid-thirties he switched to the Waffen SS, where promotion was faster.*

In Normandy, Bittrich’s faith in Hitler’s leadership began to waver. He sided with Field Marshal Rommel against Hitler’s “insane fight-to-the-last-man” philosophy. Once he confided to Rommel that “we are being so badly led from above that I can no longer carry out senseless orders. I have never been a robot and don’t intend to become one.” After the July 20 plot, when he learned that his former commander Colonel General Eric Hoep-ner, as a conspirator, had been condemned to death by hanging, Bittrich raged to his staff that “this is the blackest day for the German army.” Bittrich’s outspoken criticism of Hitler’s military leadership soon reached Berlin. As Bittrich later recalled, “my remarks were reported to the chief of the SS, Reichsführer Hein-rich Himmler, and the name Bittrich was no longer mentioned around Hitler’s headquarters.” Only the near-collapse of the German front in the west, a situation demanding Bittrich’s kind of expertise, and the attitude of sympathetic commanders had saved him from being recalled. Even so, Himmler was still “eager for me to return to Germany for a little talk.” Bittrich had no illusions about Himmler’s invitation. Nor had Model; he was determined to keep Bittrich in the west and flatly refused to entertain Himmler’s repeated requests to send Bittrich home.

Now the outraged Bittrich outlined Berlin’s latest plan to the commanders of his divisions—SS Brigadeführer (Brigadier General) Heinz Harmel of the 10th Frundsberg Division and SS Obersturmbannftihrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Walter Harzer of the 9th Hohenstaufen Division. Bittrich told Harzer—who had already learned something about the plan from Model’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs—that his 9th Hohenstaufen Division was to entrain immediately for Germany, where it would be located near Siegen, northeast of Koblenz. Harmel’s 10th Division was to remain in Holland. It would be refitted and brought up to strength in its present location east and southeast of Arnhem, ready to be committed again.

The thirty-eight-year-old Harmel, whose bluff heartiness had earned him the affectionate nickname of “der alte Frundsberg” from his men, was not pleased with the decision. It seemed to him that “Bittrich was, as usual, showing preference for the Hohenstaufen Division, perhaps because it had been his own before he became corps commander and perhaps, too, because Harzer had been his chief of staff.” Although he did not think “Bittrich was consciously unfair, it always seemed to work out that the Hohenstaufen got the cushy jobs.”

His younger counterpart, thirty-two-year-old Walter Harzer, was elated at the news, even though he thought “the likelihood of getting Berlin leave seemed doubtful.” Ideally, after refitting he expected to have a “brand-new Hohenstaufen Division.” Privately, too, the tough Harzer, his face marked by a saber scar, had high hopes now of achieving his ambition: to be promoted to the rank befitting an SS division commander—brigadier general. Still, as Bittrich outlined the entire plan, one segment was not to Harzer’s liking.

Although badly depleted, his division was still stronger than Harmel’s. Instead of the usual 9,000 men, the Hohenstaufen had barely 6,000, the Frundsberg about 3,500. Harzer had close to twenty Mark V Panther tanks, but not all were serviceable. He did, however, have a considerable number of armored vehicles: self-propelled guns, armored cars and forty armored personnel carriers, all with heavy machine guns, some mounted with artillery pieces. Harmel’s Frundsberg Division had almost no tanks and was desperately short of all kinds of armored vehicles. Both divisions still had formidable artillery, mortar and antiaircraft units. To build up the Frundsberg Division, which would remain behind, Bittrich said, Harzer was to transfer as much of his transportation and equipment as he could to Harmel. Harzer was skeptical. “In my heart,” Harzer later recalled, “I knew damn well that if I gave over my few tanks or the armored personnel carriers to Harmel, they’d never be replaced.” Harzer did not protest the decision, but he had no intention of giving up all his vehicles.

Harzer had long ago learned to husband his division’s resources. He had more vehicles than even Bittrich realized—including American jeeps he had captured during the long retreat from France. He decided to ignore the order by “some paper maneuvering.” By removing caterpillar tracks, wheels or guns from his vehicles, he could make them temporarily unserviceable until he reached Germany. In the meantime they would be listed on his armored strength returns as disabled.

Even with the extra men and vehicles from Harzer’s cannibalized division, Bittrich continued, the Frundsberg would still be understrength. There was only one way to stress the urgency of the situation to Berlin: by presenting the facts directly to SS operational headquarters. Maybe then, replacements and reinforcements would be forthcoming. But Bittrich had no intention of visiting Berlin; Harmel was made the emissary, to his surprise. “I don’t know why he chose me rather than Harzer,” Harmel remembers. “But we urgently needed men and armor, and perhaps Bittrich thought a general might carry more weight. The whole matter was to be kept secret from Field Marshal Model. So, as we were not expecting any trouble in the Arnhem area, it was decided that I would leave for Berlin on the evening of September 16.”

The exchange of equipment between Harzer and Harmel and the move of the cannibalized Hohenstaufen Division to Germany, Bittrich ordered, was to begin immediately. While the operation was in process, he added, Field Marshal Model wanted small mobile attack groups to be readied as Alarmeinheiten (“alarm units”) which could be committed in case of emergency. As a result, Harzer privately decided that his “best units would be entrained last.” Bittrich expected the entire equipment transfer and move completed by September 22. Because six trains a day left for Germany, Harzer thought the task could be completed much earlier. He believed his last and best units could leave for the Fatherland in just three more days—probably on the afternoon of September 17.

A demoralizing rumor was making the rounds. By September 14, several senior German officers in Holland were saying that an airborne drop would take place.

The talk originated from a conversation between Hitler’s operations chief, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, and the Commander in Chief, West, Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Jodl was concerned that the Allies might invade Holland from the sea. If Eisenhower followed his usual tactics, Jodl said, airborne troops would be dropped as a prelude to the seaborne attack. Von Rundstedt, though skeptical of the suggestion (he, by contrast, was convinced that paratroopers would be dropped in conjunction with an attack on the Ruhr), passed the information on to Army Group B’s commander, Field Marshal Model. Model’s view was the same as Von Rundstedt’s. Nevertheless, he could not ignore Jodl’s warning. He ordered the German armed forces commander in Holland, the jittery Luftwaffe general, Friedrich Christiansen, to dispatch units of his meager grab bag of army, navy, Luftwaffe and Dutch Waffen SS personnel to the coast.

Since Jodl’s call on September 11, the scare had traveled down the various echelons of command, particularly through Luftwaffe channels. Although the invasion had so far failed to materialize, the fear of an airborne drop was still mounting. Everyone was speculating on possible sites. From their maps, some Luftwaffe commanders saw the large open areas between the north coast and Arnhem as possible landing zones. Others, nervously awaiting the renewal of the British offensive into Holland from the bridgehead over the Meuse-Escaut Canal at Neerpelt, wondered if paratroopers might be used in conjunction with that attack and dropped into the area of Nijmegen.

On September 13, Luftwaffe Colonel General Otto Dessloch, commander of the 3rd Air Fleet, heard about Berlin’s fears at Von Rundstedt’s headquarters in Koblenz. Dessloch was so concerned that he telephoned Field Marshal Model the following day. Model, he recalls, thought Berlin’s invasion scare was “nonsense.” The Field Marshal was so unconcerned “that he invited me to dinner at his new headquarters in the Tafelberg Hotel in Oosterbeek.” Dessloch refused. “I have no intention of being made a prisoner,” he told Model. Just before he hung up, Dessloch added: “If I were you, I would get out of that area.” Model, Dessloch remembers, merely laughed.

At Deelen airfield north of Arnhem word of a possible airborne attack reached Luftwaffe fighter commander Major General Walter Grabmann. He drove to Oosterbeek for a conference with Model’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs. When Grabmann expressed the Luftwaffe’s fears, Krebs said, “For God’s sake, don’t talk about such things. Anyway, where would they land?” Grabmann went to a map and, pointing to areas west of Arnhem, said, “Anywhere here. The heath is perfect for paratroopers.” Krebs, Grabmann later recalled, “laughed and warned me that if I continued to talk this way, I’d make myself look ridiculous.”

Holland’s notorious police chief, SS Lieutenant General Hanns Albin Rauter, heard the rumor too, possibly from his superior General Christiansen. Rauter was convinced that anything was possible, including an airborne attack. Rauter, chief architect of Nazi terror in the Netherlands, expected the Dutch underground to attack and the population to rise at any moment. He was determined to stamp out any kind of insurrection by the simple expedient of executing three Dutch nationals for each Nazi killed. Rauter had declared an “emergency” immediately after the German retreat and the stampede of Dutch Nazis to Germany two weeks before. His police had taken bitter revenge against anyone even remotely involved with the Dutch resistance. Men and women were arrested, shot or sent off into concentration camps. Ordinary citizens fared little better. All travel between provinces was forbidden. More restrictive rules were imposed. Anyone found on the streets during curfew risked being fired on without warning. All over southern Holland, in anticipation of the British offensive, the Dutch were pressed into service as laborers digging trenches for the Wehrmacht. In Nijmegen, Rauter filled his workforce quota by threatening to throw entire families into concentration camps. Gatherings of any kind were forbidden. “Where more than five persons are seen together,” one of Rauter’s posters warned, “they will be fired on by the Wehrmacht, SS or police troops.”

Now, with the British attack from the south imminent and Berlin’s warning of a possible air and sea attack in the north, Rauter’s world was beginning to come apart. He was terrified.* Learning that Model was in Holland, Rauter decided to seek reassurance and set out for the Tafelberg Hotel. On the evening of September 14, Rauter met with Model and his chief of staff, General Krebs. He was “convinced,” Rauter told them, “that the Allies would now use airborne forces in southern Holland.” He felt that it was the right psychological moment. Model and Krebs disagreed. Elite airborne formations, Model said, were too “precious, their training too costly” for indiscriminate use. The Field Marshal did indeed expect Montgomery to attack into Holland from Neerpelt, but the situation was not critical enough to justify the use of airborne troops. Also, since assault forces would be separated by three broad rivers to the south, he did not think that a British attack toward Arnhem was possible. Both Nijmegen and Arnhem were too far from the British forces. Besides, Model continued, Montgomery was “tactically a very cautious man. He would never use airborne forces in a reckless adventure.”

By the time the prisoner reached Major Friedrich Kieswetter’s headquarters in the village of Driebergen, west of Oosterbeek, on September 15, the deputy chief of Wehrmacht counterintelligence in Holland knew a great deal about him. There was an ample file on slow-witted, twenty-eight-year-old Christiaan An-tonius Lindemans, better known, because of his huge size (6’3”, 260 lbs.), as “King Kong.” Lindemans had been captured by a patrol near the Dutch-Belgian border, in the no man’s land between the British and German lines. At first, because of his British battle dress, Lindemans was taken for a soldier but, at the battalion command post near Valkenswaard, to the amazement of his interrogators, he demanded to see Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Giskes—German spy chief in Holland and Kieswetter’s superior. After a series of phone calls, Lindemans’ captors were even more astonished to receive orders to drive the prisoner immediately to Driebergen. Lindemans alone displayed no surprise. Some of his compatriots thought him to be a stanch member of the Dutch underground; but the Germans knew him in another capacity—as a spy. King Kong was a double agent.

Lindemans had turned traitor in 1943. At that time he offered to work for Giskes in return for the release of his current mistress and younger brother, Henk, arrested by the Gestapo as a member of the underground and said to be awaiting execution. Giskes had readily agreed; and ever since, Lindemans had served the Germans well. His perfidy had resulted in the penetration of many underground cells and the arrest and execution of numerous Dutch and Belgian patriots. Although he was crude and boastful, given to wild, drunken excesses and possessed of an insatiable appetite for women, Lindemans had so far miraculously escaped exposure. However, many resistance leaders considered him a dangerous risk, unlike certain Allied officers in Brussels who were so impressed by King Kong that Lindemans now worked for a British intelligence unit under the command of a Canadian captain.

In Giskes’ absence, Kieswetter dealt with Lindemans for the first time. He found the towering braggart, who introduced himself to everyone in the office as the “great King Kong,” disgusting. Lindemans told the major of his latest mission. The Canadian intelligence officer had sent him to warn underground leaders in Eindhoven that downed Allied pilots were no longer to be sent through the “escape line” into Belgium. Because the British were due to break out from the Neerpelt bridgehead toward Eindhoven, the pilots were to be kept hidden. Lindemans, who had spent five days coming through the lines, was able to give Kieswetter some details on the British buildup. The attack, he said flatly, would take place on September 17.

The imminence of the British move was hardly news. Kieswetter, like everyone else, had been expecting it momentarily. Lindemans also informed Kieswetter of another development: coincidental with the British attack, he reported, a paratroop drop was planned beyond Eindhoven to help capture the town.* The revelation made no sense to Kieswetter. Why use paratroopers when the British army could easily reach Eindhoven by itself? Perhaps because Lindemans’ information seemed unrealistic or more likely because of his antipathy toward King Kong, Kieswetter told Lindemans to continue on with his mission and then return to the British lines. Kieswetter took no immediate action. He thought so little of Lindemans’ information that he did not pass it on directly to Wehrmacht headquarters. He sent it, instead, through the Sicherheitsdienst (SS security and intelligence service). He also dictated a brief memorandum of his conversation with Lindemans for Giskes, at the moment away on another assignment. Giskes, who had always considered King Kong reliable, would not receive it until the afternoon of September 17.

*As a suspected war criminal, Bittrich spent eight years in prison after World War II; on June 22, 1953, he was found innocent and released. Waffen SS commanders are difficult to locate and interview, but Bittrich and his officers were extremely helpful to me in setting the record straight on many hitherto unknown events in the Arnhem battle. Bittrich wanted me to clarify one minor matter relating to his personal life. In various British accounts “I have been described as a musician who hoped to be a conductor,” he told me. “But the authors have confused me with my brother, Dr. Gerhard Bittrich, an extremely talented pianist and conductor.”

*In the safety of his prison cell after the war, Rauter admitted to Dutch interrogators that “at the time I was very nervous…. I had to paralyze the resistance.” Rauter was found guilty by a Dutch court on January 12, 1949, of a wide range of offenses, including “persecution of the Jews, deportation of inhabitants for slave labor, pillage, confiscation of property, illegal arrests, detentions … and the killings of innocent civilians as reprisals for offenses … against the occupying authorities.” He was executed on March 25, 1949.

*After the war, some British newspapers charged that it was because Lindemans pinpointed Arnhem as the main airborne objective that the panzer divisions were waiting. Obviously this is not so. Bittrich’s corps reached its positions before Eisenhower and Montgomery met on September 10 and decided on Market-Garden. Neither could Lindemans have known anything about the Arnhem attack or the massive dimensions of the operation. Again, Allied decisions on dates, placement of drop zones, etc. were made long after Lindemans left Brussels to cross the German lines. A second often-repeated story is that Lindemans was taken to Colonel General Kurt Student’s headquarters at Vught for questioning, and it has been suggested that the airborne expert correctly evaluated the report and gave the alert. Student flatly denies this allegation. “It is a large fat lie,” he told me. “I never met Lindemans. Indeed, I first heard of the whole affair in a prison camp after the war.” Student adds, “The truth is, nobody in the German command knew anything about the attack until it happened.” Shortly after Market-Garden, suspicion fell on Lindemans and he was arrested by the Dutch. King Kong, the great Lothario, lived up to his reputation to the very end. In July, 1946, forty-eight hours before his trial, Lindemans, in a prison hospital, was found unconscious with a prison nurse nearby. Both of them, in a bizarre “love pact,” had taken overdoses of sleeping pills. Lindemans died, the girl survived.

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